Friday, May 30, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #8 - Can You Count in a Minyan Online?

The official position of the Rabbinical Assembly can be found in full here, and the conclusions are as follows:

1. A minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, as defined, that is being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.

2. Once a quorum has been duly constituted, anyone hearing the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill his or her obligations thereby, even over long distance communications of whatever sort.

(a) Some would refrain from fulfilling the specific requirement to hear the shofar in this way, due to its specific nature, but others permit. This committee is on record among those who would allow even the hearing of Shofar in this way.

3. This specifically refers to hearing. A real-time audio connection is necessary. Two-way connection to the whole minyan is preferable, though connection to the shaliah tzibbur alone or a one way connection linking the minyan to the individual are sufficient. E-mail and chat room or other typewritten connections do not suffice. Video connections are not necessary, and in the absence of audio would not suffice.

4. A clear hierarchy of preference is discernible here. It is preferable by far to attend a minyan, for the full social and communal effect of minyan for which it was established is only possible in that way. Less desirable, but closest to attendance at a minyan proper, is real-time two-way audio-video connection, wherein the individual, though unable to reach the other minyonnaires, is able to converse with them and see and be seen by them. Only in rare or exigent circumstances should one enact the third, and least desirable, method of fulfilling one.s obligation to pray with a minyan by attaching oneself to that minyan through a one-way audio vehicle, essentially overhearing them as one standing outside the synagogue.

5. With regard to Mourner’s Kaddish, some member of the minyan must recite the kaddish, but a participant at a distant location may recite it along with him or her, as this is not considered a superfluous blessing (__!_______). There is no obligation to pursue additional opportunities to recite kaddish, and this should be discouraged.

6. To fulfill time-bound obligations, the prayers must be offered during the requisite period in the frame of reference of the one whose obligation is to be fulfilled.

The topic is a fascinating one, and as technologies improve and Jews disperse across the globe even more, it will surely be revisited again and again. What defines a community at prayer? What defines a community at all?

An article in article in the Jerusalem Post calls for 600,000 Jews to gather virtually on Facebook. Undoubtedly many more than 600,000 Jews are on there now! But if, as it is said, 600,000 were at Sinai to receive the Torah, and yet, in some virtual manner all the rest of us were as well, how is that different from online presence? We, who can testify to Sinai’s revelation but only from having been there “virtually,” can also attend our own synagogues virtually, no?

Well, no. While the power of a virtual visit can be extraordinary ( as we see in online prayer circles and CaringBridge), nothing can match the power of schlepping out of bed in the morning and being at a service to lend comfort or reaffirm hope. And it’s also just a great place to schmooze. In the words of my teacher, rabbi Neil Gillman, “the “schtibel” (study hall) served the Jewish male in the same way the corner bar served the Irish male — i.e., as an escape from the family, an opportunity to bond with other men, exchange gossip, do business and discuss politics.” What was once true for men only has now expanded vastly. In fact, at yesterday’s minyan, I was one of only three men there (which is not the norm) among over a dozen woman.

But we do use the Internet often now as a tool for getting a minyan, such TBE’s Rosner Minyan Maker and our “Guaranteed Minyan” e-mails. And as we begin interfacing much more visually through Skype and other tools, we may find the argument for online minyans, at least in some circumstances, more compelling.

Are You An Optimist?

Last week’s curse-filled, depressing portion, prompted a wonderful d’var Torah by our bar mitzvah (see it below) and further discussion on Judaism, pessimism and optimism. Judaism is a glass half full religion, but unfortunately, we’ve had a glass mostly empty history. So last week’s portion had a few token verses describing the blessings that would befall us if we obey the commandments, and then fully 36 verses describing the most gruesome negative consequences imaginable, complete with horrific visions of parents being compelled by hunger to eat their young. It is noteworthy that traditional commentators like Rashi bend over backwards to find a bright side of these foreboding passages. It’s almost Monty Pythonesque to see how far they go to “always look on the bright side of life.” As Nehama Leibowitz wrote in her commentary on Behukotai: “Our Parashah thus reflects the principle, which our sages discerned throughout Scriptures, whereby the measure of Divine Goodness outweighs that of Divine retribution (cf. Yoma 76a).”

At the annual meeting this week, I spoke of the need to become realistic optimists. In charging the new board, I mentioned that it is most important (for any leader of any institution, but particularly a synagogue) to check negativity at the door. I mentioned that were I not such an optimist, with unwavering faith in this congregation and in the future, it wouldn’t be easy for me to remain a rabbi. But just to check out my own leanings, I took an optimism text, at My scores revealed, no surprise, that I am moderately to very optimistic. The scores are explained at You can take a different test at

While human nature, genetics and experience play a significant rile in formulating our outlooks, optimism is something that can be learned. These tests are hardly foolproof, and, as an upcoming bar mitzvah student recently reminded me, “the glass is half full if I am filling it up but half empty if I am drinking it.”

In other words it all depends on one’s perspective. Hopefulness is in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, Immigration Reform and Emma Lazerus

In honor of Memorial Day and keeping in mind the current debate over immigration reform, i reprint here the famous poem, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. Her poem, engraved on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands (, reminds American Jews (and most Americans) that we are all the children of refugees. Many of our ancestors had no choice but to seek our these shores. Others were turned away, with tragic consequences. Emma herself was not an immigrant ( and she struggled openly with her Jewish identity while fighting the anti-Semitism of the time. The entry about her in the Jewish Virtual Library concludes, regarding “The New Colossus,” “Her best-known contribution to mainstream American literature and culture, the poem has contributed to the belief that America means opportunity and freedom for Jews, as well as for other "huddled masses." Through this celebration of the "other," Lazarus conveyed her deepest loyalty to the best of both America and Judaism.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

What is Lag B'Omer" (Spiritual Web Journey)

LAG B’OMER falls on Tuesday (for 2009). No Jewish holiday has more obscure origins and diverse explanations. About the easiest thing to explain about it is the name. Since each Hebrew letter has a corresponding numerical value, the letters lamed and gimel add up to thirty-three, and Saturday night indeed is the thirty third night of the counting period between Passover and Shavuot known as the Omer.

What’s the Omer?

OK, so what’s an Omer? It is first mentioned in the Torah portion Emor, read a few weeks ago. It is also known as the Sephira, which means counting, but Jewish mystics have tied that into the notion of the Sephirot, God’s emanations. So let’s see, we’ve got Omer, Emor, Sephira, Sephirot…let’s call the whole thing off!

No, let’s just go to the experts for help. At, you’ll find Eliezer Segal’s excellent tie-in to the portion, including an explanation as to a humdinger of a rabbinic controversy regarding the Jewish calendar. The Omer is considered a semi-mourning period. It is interesting to note that, even within the traditional world, according to the Young Israel of Passaic Website, “In the post-Holocaust era, uniformity of practice is virtually no longer possible to implement, since pockets of population with all sorts of customs have descended upon all Jewish communities. Accordingly, in one city it is no longer surprising to see a host of customs simultaneously observed.” This can often leads to much confusion in the scheduling of communal events, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings at this time of year. You can have a halakhic field day on all this at the OU site,

The Kabbalalists loved the Omer concept both because of the tie-in to the Sephirot. To see how they do that, check out this from Reb Goldie Milgrom, of the New York Center for Jewish Meditation, at IF you really want to learn all about the Sephirot, got to For a Breslaver Hasidic view, see

What’s Lag B’Omer?

Now we focus on the big day itself. is a good place to start. If after that you can figure out the difference between Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Bar Yochai, you’re ready for the Lag B’Omer hot sites at From there you can really go to town on this stuff. I mean that quite literally, for there are several visits to those hotbeds of Lag B’Omer festivities, Meron and Safed, nestled high in the hills of northern Galilee.
will take you to Safed and Meron, describing the white-hot bonfires, and you’ll also be exposed to some relatively palatable selections from the Zohar, that magnum opus of Jewish mysticism. Continue to explore Mount Meron with nice photos, at, and find out at how the Meron scene is really akin to “Meah Shearim meets Woodstock.” On the other hand, the article at says that Meron “’aint exactly Woodstock.” Lots less rain and lots more clothes, I suppose. Finally, go there on YouTube at meron lag baomer 2006 and Meron 2007.

Back on earth, Lag B’Omer is more of a nature festival for those naturalists among us. (I agree with those who see a definite May Day tie in, both holidays sharing ancient pagan roots with other spring nature festivals). In the early days of Zionism, it became a perfect time to celebrate the spectacular spring weather in the Land of Israel, with bonfires and picnics. All the secular youth groups would take part. A nice photographic reminder of that can be found at the kids, a nice story about Rabbi Akiba, one of the heroes of the festival, can be found at For the cooks, some Lag B’omer picnic recipes are at

And one final, sobering note: Yitz Greenberg teaches us the lessons of Lag B’Omer’s history at
“Most people think of Lag B’Omer as a warm, fuzzy semi-holiday with a nature-loving theme. But in the Talmud, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer period is a devastating reminder of a catastrophe caused by Jews’ divisiveness. Today, Jewry seems headed for a repeat of the disaster.”

Happy Lag B’Omer and Shabbat Shalom to all the people of Israel and the world.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #7 - The Horrors of Horace and Other Abuses


1) Facebook and MySpace Scandals:
Horrors at Horace and Megan Meier’s Suicide

Facebook has become the most powerful social networking tool since the invention of the telephone. I’ve recently seem some of the good it can do in bringing people together.

But, as the great Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility. So when a rabbinic colleague pointed me toward the recent New York Magazine account of happened at Horace Mann, I began to wonder whether this genie needs to be returned to its bottle. See the article at To quote from the article, “Kids have always ragged on an unpopular teacher or ridiculed an unfortunate classmate. But sites like Facebook and are changing the power dynamics of the community in an unpredictable way. It is as if students were standing outside the classroom window, taunting the teacher to her face. Should they be punished? There were, as yet, no rules or codes for how a school should address such issues.” The article goes on to show how powerless the teachers were in this matter.

And then there was the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier and the subsequent indictment of Lori Drew, Megan’s best friend’s mother, in her murder. Read about this case here in an essay by Michele Catalano. Lori’s actions were unquestionably despicable (she created a teenage boy character who gained Megan’s confidence online and then dumped her, saying that the world would be better off without her), but the essay raises difficult questions as to whether moral blame also should be legal responsibility in this case. Because of the peculiar grounds used for the indictment, she writes, “What Drew’s indictment means, in essence, is that any Internet user now risks criminal proceedings for doing something as simple as creating a fake name to post messages on a website, something many people do each day for legitimate reasons.”

This is a legitimate question. Is meanness a crime? Is bullying the same as murder?

The Jewish answer is the moral answer. And that answer is Yes. Long before Facebook existed, the rabbis recorded in the midrash (Bereshith Rabbah 98:23), "What is spoken in Rome can kill in Damascus." Now, with that same distance traversable in a millisecond, all the more so, these words can kill.

Words have extraordinary power – the power to ruin careers, as the teachers at Horace Mann are finding out, and the power to kill, as in the case of Megan Meier. Lori Drew is guilty, but the law simply has to catch up with the technology and find a way to put her away without compromising our cherished freedoms.

2) The Quick Fix and the Chain Letter Syndrome

This week I received a heartwarming e-mail chain letter, a poem called “Slow Dance,” ostensibly written by a terminally ill young girl.

You can find it here.

I am always suspicious of dispatches like this (like that ubiquitous e-mail warning us of the anti-Holocaust curricula in the United Kingdom…or is it the University of Kentucky?), so I did some research. The poem has made its way around the cyber world several times over. If you go to Snopes -, you’ll discover, in fact that “Slow Dance” has been circulating online for eight years! And it’s a hoax. Not a harmful hoax, as hoaxes go, but a hoax nonetheless. It wasn’t written by someone who is dying, the American Cancer society will not donate money for every time this is forwarded, and Amy Bruce, the 7 year old cancer patient to whom the poem is often attributed in several variants, does not exist. You can read more background on this at Originally, the poem wasn’t even part of the hoax, and the professor named here (from Yeshiva U) had nothing to do with it, he simply was one of those good-natured souls who forwarded it, with his signature unfortunately affixed at the bottom.

Otherwise, the poem ‘aint bad.

But don’t you feel deceived – violated – when reading that it’s a hoax?

The Internet has a way of drawing us in and spitting us out. So an important precept of Masechet Cyberspace is that we should be highly skeptical of everything we read. Even people we know may not be sending us the e-mails that we think are coming from them. One spammer has in fact latched onto my own name to send things to me – from “me.” I’m now hawking Viagra to myself on a regular basis, which is somewhat disconcerting. And even when the e-mail is genuine, it can be so easily misunderstood. Such is the immense power – and the danger - of this new technological tool.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #6 - A Netiquette Primer

An entirely new ethical field is growing regarding proper online behavior. A nice summary of some of the issues can be found at, a site that was just sent to me from colleagues working on new initiatives regarding the impact of Cyber Culture on Jewish education. This is being coordinated by the Lippman Kanfer Institute Learnings and Consultation Center at JESNA, a Jewish education think tank. I’ve become involved in the project and will be attending special sessions on the topic at this summer’s big annual happening in Jewish Education, the CAJE Conference.

So if you look at this site you’ll find the following definition:

Digital etiquette, or netiquette as its sometimes called, is a basic set of rules you should follow in order to make the internet better for others, and better for you. It’s just as important to treat people with courtesy and respect online as it is in real life. When you instant message, chat, or email someone over the Internet, they can’t see your face to tell if you’re teasing them or saying something in jest. How do you practice good Netiquette? It’s simple – just treat others as you want to be treated – with courtesy and respect. People know these rules but usually do not follow when using the Internet. This includes hacking others computer, downloading illegally, plagiarism and using bad language on the Internet. Not a lot of schools teach students how important it is to follow these rules that everyone knows. If all of us follow this it could make the Internet a better space to share and use.

Interesting that it always comes right back to the Golden Rule.
They must have been thinking of Leviticus 19:18 when they wrote this. In fact at Tech they even call them “Golden Rules” – and here they are:

1. Keep e-mails short and to the point
Office e-mail has a specific business purpose such as getting results, communicating an important fact or getting a response. The chances of quickly accomplishing that purpose increase when your e-mail is short, easy to understand and gets to the point.

2. Write the action you are requesting and topic in the ’subject’ line
Describe what you need the recipient to do and the topic in the “subject” line. Something short and to the point. For instance: “Please review Jones proposal letter;” or “Need blueprint for Jones project.” By clearly identifying the purpose of your e-mail in the subject line, the recipient will quickly know what you are writing about; it’s easy to find; and it separates your e-mail from spam.

3. Check your grammar and spelling
Grammar and spelling are often overlooked, but remember that your e-mail may be going out to a client, a prospective client, your employees or maybe your boss. You want to look smart, not sloppy. Use any built-in spell check before sending an e-mail.

4. Be cautious.
Think before you send an e-mailIt’s so easy to hit the “reply” button and write a message. This can be a problem if you act spontaneously. Temper and tone matter.In most instances, once an e-mail is sent, it’s gone. You cannot take it back. So if you have written any harsh words or forwarded an inappropriate e- mail to several colleagues and inadvertently added your boss’s name to the distribution list, once you hit “send” they will be reading it shortly.

5. Remember that e-mail is not private
When you send an e-mail to someone, it goes through many networks before it reaches your recipient and may even leave copies of your e-mail on a server, which can be accessed. It may seem as though you are communicating only with that person (and in most instances you are); however, your e-mail can be forwarded by the recipient to others. A number of companies, including Verizon, offer e-mail encryption products, which encrypt a sender’s e-mail message and digitally sign it. The services also verify and authenticate that the message has not been altered and prevent it from being opened by anyone except the intended recipient. Additionally, users can lock e-mails so that they cannot be viewed by others.

6. Use out of office response, if available, to alert others of your absence
Many e-mail systems and services let you set up an automatic reply advising senders that you are not available. For efficiency of communications, trigger this auto-reply tool when you are away so senders know not to expect a timely response.

7. Keep it strictly business
It is best not to use the business e-mail systems for personal communication. Use your personal e-mail instead.

8. Be courteous, considerate and responsible when writing an e-mail message
Communication via e-mail is often considered informal, but you shouldn’t treat it that way. Remember, your e-mail may be going to your boss, your clients, your prospective clients, your colleagues. Be courteous and reply in a timely manner. It’s good to have a signature in your e-mail so the recipient can easily contact you. Additionally, it clearly identifies you and your company. Before e-mailing a large file, it’s wise to alert the recipients to be sure they want the file and in case they need to make room for it.

9. Keep your computer virus free
Lastly, make sure your computer is virus-free because you don’t want to be the person sending everyone a virus. As an aside, with the success of this book every computer journalist and writer (me included) is thinking “doh”, why didn’t I think of email etiquette as a topic for book? Just goes to show that the next hot topic may be something as unlikely as email…

These suggestions are very helpful, but the conversation about Netiquette is only beginning…

Why should a non-observant teen take SATs on Sunday?

There is a little tip that I want to share with our teens: take your SATs and SAT2s on Sunday, rather than the traditional Saturday date. It is almost certain to increase your score, and, BTW, you’ll be doing something very important for the Jewish people as well.

When I bring this up to teens, they often respond that it would be hypocritical for them to do so if they do not otherwise observe the Shabbat in a traditional manner. Here is my response:

· First of all, I rarely use the term “hypocritical.” I prefer “inconsistent.” I would much prefer to set the bar high and never quite reach it than to say that Jewish observance must be an “all or nothing” proposition. It thrills me to know that so many of our kids (of all ages) bring matzah to school for lunch on Passover, for example, even if they are not completely observant in other ways. This public expression of Jewish pride is extremely beneficial precisely because it is so public. It says to the world – to both your non-Jewish and especially to your Jewish friends – that our customs teach important moral lessons and that you love being a Jew. We all make compromises. It was easy for my family when my kids were at day school. Now they are at Westhill, and we have to make tough decisions, but in each case we try as a family to maintain some integrity in our inconsistency. Recently, I walked down to the street to see Dan’s play on a Friday night, with tickets paid for in advance. We’re pre-paying prom expenses in a similar manner. In short, it is perfectly OK to observe Shabbat by taking SATs on Sunday, even if your general practice is to be less than fully observant. It’s more than that – it’s exemplary.

· It feels good to take these tests in a room with a dozen people, all of whom have chosen to express Jewish pride just as you have. The alternative is to take them in a room filled with many more people, who share nothing but nervousness. You enter the exam in a positive frame of mind. It’s like coming home to take the test…. Think about it: would you rather take a huge exam in your own kitchen, chomping on your mom’s warm toll house cookies, or at a packed McDonalds?

· Having that one extra day to study, a quiet Saturday, can be a real asset. Just ask Ethan, who has now taken these tests on Sunday several times, following a relaxing but study-centered Shabbat.

· It is much easier to do than you might think. When you sign up for the tests online, the application allows for Sunday testing options. We are lucky to have a testing site right here in Stamford, at Bi Cultural. Seeing Lillian Wasserman proctoring there, as she has for years, brought an additional smile to Ethan when he went a few weeks ago. Once you have done this once, the process becomes even easier for future test dates.

Oh yes. For the first one, you will need a note from your rabbi. HELLO! HERE I AM! RIGHT OVER HERE! Needless to say, I would be delighted to help.

One of the byproducts of my having to sign off on these is that I have the first hand knowledge of how few of our teens are taking advantage of this easy opportunity to say to the world, “I’m Jewish and Proud!” It’s quite possible that many have not been aware of how easy it is. For that, I accept complete responsibility.

But now, you know.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jerusalem of Gold…and Love (Web Journey)

With Lag B’Omer coming up next week, and Jerusalem Day soon to follow, this week’s web journey takes us back to a place, and a song, that can help us understand what all the fuss is about. I discovered the "Jerusalem of Gold" Web site totally by serendipity (which is exactly where these spiritual journeys are supposed to begin), while looking for something else. I was immediately taken by the story of the song, just as its music has long enraptured me. So saunter over, if you please, to Once you're there, click on "music," and search for a file with the song so that you can hear it, or if you're a reformed Napsterite like me, find it in your own MP3 files.

The story of the song is almost as enchanting as the song itself. Like the fact that the title came to Naomi Shemer from a Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva, who romantically dreamed of being able to offer his wife a "Jerusalem of Gold," which to him must have been the most precious gift imaginable. He, after all, lived in amidst the rubble of the recently destroyed (and never completely cleaned up) second temple. Akiva's yearning is matched by Shemer's own, as for her, this song was as much a dirge as a tribute, bemoaning the still deserted marketplaces and empty Dead Sea road. Recall that this song was written just BEFORE the Six-Day War. Recall also, that those marketplaces were in fact well populated at the time -- by Arabs, who were essentially invisible to the Jewish dreamers and songwriters of that era. No, we are not totally blameless in the tragedy that has since followed this miraculous June victory.

Check out "Jewish Sources" and you'll see that for the sages, the "Jerusalem of Gold" was an actually article of jewelry, one that Akiva presented to his wife Rachel in gratitude for her steadfast devotion to him during the hard times. Read about it with greater clarity at Rabbi Judith Abrams' excellent Maqom site It turns out that the Akiba - Rachel story is sort of a Jewish version of the "Gift of the Magi. (").

A perfect way to imagine Jerusalem -- a city that can be attained not simply with great sacrifice, but with an infinite love for one's fellow human, and an infinite desire to give. That is also seen in the famous account of the Two Brothers, another seminal Jerusalem story. See it at

Now here's a twist. Is it possible that the Jewish Two Brothers story has Palestinian parallels? Check it out at With all this love, why is there so much hate? God only knows….
Back to Akiva: The love story between Akiva and Rachel is one of the most beautiful in Jewish literature. Read about it at, which will also help prepare you for the upcoming minor festival of Lag B'Omer.

Then go to, and you'll read something else about Lag B'Omer and Rabbi Akiva. (Actually, you’ll no longer find it there, but this is what it USED to say)

"The Talmud speaks obscurely of a plague occurring on one Omer that killed 24,000 students of the second-century Rabbi Akiva. What kind of a plague was it that apparently only affected Rabbi Akiva's talmudic students and nobody else and came to an end on Lag Ba'Omer (the thirty-third of the forty-nine days)? Most modern scholars assume that the plague referred to was not an illness.

Rabbi Akiva supported a rebellion against the Roman conquerors of Israel led by a famous Jewish military leader by the name of Bar-Kochba. Moreover, Akiva declared Bar-Kochba to be the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman domination. Although Bar-Kochba did achieve some early military successes, eventually the Romans suppressed his revolt with incredible brutality. Among Bar-Kochba's leading soldiers were thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. Thus, it is likely that Lag Ba'Omer was a day on which the Jews either achieved a short lived victory over the Romans or gained some respite from the slaughter of battle."

There are fascinating parallels to our time. There is no real respite for Israel from the plague of terrorism right now. But Israelis, whether in Sderot, the north, or anywhere, are a resilient lot. They celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut last week and made light of the bombast coming from Iran and Lebanon. But soon, soon, we must hope, the marketplaces will be bustling once again, with Jews and Arabs together, making commerce, not war.

And soon, in our lifetime, we'll all go down to the Dead Sea together, without war, without fear, by way of Jericho.

The National and the Natural

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a Learner’s Service, focusing on how our prayers transport us to the land of Israel. As we journeyed through the opening Psalms, (called Pesukei d'Zimra), we noticed a progression of Zionist imagery equating the natural with the national. Psalm 147, for example, describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of exiles alongside natural wonders like snow and ice storms. Anyone who has ever seen snow in Jerusalem knows how awe inspiring this synthesis of national and natural can be. Then, Psalms 148, 149 and 150 continue this interplay, juxtaposing the rejoicing of pilgrims and the harmony of the heavens, Israel’s new sanctuary with God’s. Scholars have often seen the Temple in Jerusalem (and the sanctuary in the Wilderness before it) as being constructed from a blueprint analogous to the one God used in the Creation of the Universe. So now that idea is played out in the liturgy.

While the wonders of nature can be found everywhere, they achieve their greatest glory in the Land of Israel. “Wherever I go,” said Nachman of Bratzlav, “I go to Jerusalem.”

The Pesukey d’Zimra section concludes with the prayer Nishmat Kol Chai, “The Breath of Every Living Thing,” known in the Talmud as Birkat ha-Shir (Blessing of the Song). Subsequent generations picked up on the idea that every creature prays, each in its own way, simply by breathing. A few years ago in Israel, I picked up a booklet known as Perek Shira, in which appears the precise prayer that each creature utters, derived from biblical verses. You can download a 16-page booklet containing the text of Perek Shirah with an English translation by clicking here, and you can see a video presentation here.

Some say that uttering these verses can bring blessing (hence, Perek Shira became especially popular among Israeli settlers before the evacuation of Gaza in 2005). I’m not sure about blessing, but they certainly bring peace of mind and reinforce the mystical connection between nature and nation, between the people and land of Israel. In these prayers, all of creation is profoundly linked, and the holy land becomes our frame of reference for viewing all reality.

In Israel, you don’t look west, you look “seaward,” (yamma) and similarly, the word south is Negev, because that’s where it is, and the north, tzafon, means hidden, because northern Israel is covered with mysterious mountains and dark forests.

In Perek Shira - the lions aren’t merely models of brute strength but symbols of self control (because they sublimate their power to coexist in groups). This idea of quintessential strength and self restraint is profoundly Jewish, homegrown (see Pirke Avot 4.1) in the land of Israel.

The grasshopper, whose eyes and body are angled heavenwards, sings the verse from Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes up to the mountains; from where shall my help come?” And those mountains that the Psalmist invokes are the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.

If you listen closely enough, you just might hear the grasshopper singing Carlebach.

Grasshopper – mountains – Jerusalem….

Wherever I go…

No More "Three-Day" Jews

The Jewish Week: May 14, 2008

If there were a graveyard for the outmoded, it would be filled with typewriters, telephone dials, shortwave radios and three-day-a-year Jews. These items don’t exist any more, except in museums, attics and the nostalgic yearnings of those caught up in the imagery of yesteryear.

All are victims of the technological revolution. Typewriters have been replaced by the computer; dial phones with touch tones, shortwave with Web sites, and three-day Jews have been rendered obsolete by radically new modes of connection providing grass-roots Jewish empowerment 365 days a year.

A few weeks ago, a congregant came up to me and the conversation turned to one of those moral perplexities that seem to confound us with greater frequency these days. As we parted, he said,
“I guess the answer will never be fully understood, just like the red cow.”

“Right,” I said as I walked away, impressed that he knew all about that obscure law, categorized by commentators as one of those few mitzvot that defy human understanding. It’s complicated stuff, indicating a high level of curiosity and inquiry.

Now this particular congregant is hardly of the legendary three-day ilk. He attends services often, but his erudite allusion was typical of comments I’ve been getting lately, even from congregants whom I rarely see between High Holy Days.

I’ve always felt that this three-day thing was overrated. Even the most marginal Jew occasionally finds his way to a synagogue for bar mitzvahs, funerals, concerts or lectures. The “three-day” moniker was just another way to foster guilt and degradation, to reinforce the hierarchical nature of Jewish life and to highlight the alienation many feel from institutional Judaism. But it never had much to do with true levels of Jewish engagement.

Centuries ago, the Baal Shem Tov literally blew the whistle on such derogatory labels with his tale of the shepherd who came to services on Yom Kippur, and who, when moved to pray, pulled out his shepherd’s whistle and blew. The congregation was outraged, until the founder of modern Chasidism asserted that only the shrill blasts of this uninitiated stranger had enabled everyone’s prayers to pierce the gates of heaven.

The Dalai Lama hasn’t seen the inside of his holy place since 1959, yet no one calls him a three-day Tibetan. It’s time to stop bemoaning the drop in institutional affiliation and recognize that Jewish identification is now being fostered in ways that community leaders cannot possibly measure — much of it anonymously, online.

Now, everyone has complete access, in the office or at home, to a Jewish library larger than the cumulative libraries of every great rabbi for the past two millennia. The entire Talmud, the venerable Jewish Encyclopedia and reams of Torah commentary are just a click away.

It’s a new era. As we’ve seen this year in domestic and foreign politics, the operative direction for the flow of information is no longer top-down but rather bottom-up. The old hierarchies no longer hold the power they used to, from the Chinese government, which struggles to control grassroots protests against repressive policies, to the Catholic Church, which faces dissent from within.

Good thing we don’t have such hierarchies in Judaism.

And if we did, we won’t. Now every Jew is theoretically his or her own rabbi. The Torah, after all, calls us a “nation of priests.” But while we no longer need rabbis or synagogues to access Jewish information, it helps to have someone capable of interpreting it, who can help people choose from the dizzying array of options. Just as the WebMD generation still needs doctors, we still need trained rabbis — but the training needs to be more befitting a non hierarchical age of empowerment.

Behold, the birth of the Wiki Jew.

According to — what else? — Wikipedia, “A wiki is software that allows users to collaboratively create, edit, link, and organize the content of a website... Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites.”

Wikipedia has many flaws, but the enormity of the collaboration that creates it is awe-inspiring. The community that is constructing this vast compendium of accumulating knowledge s nothing less than the entire human race. Anyone can contribute to this trove of information — even those less than qualified. But in the end, the power of numbers enables Wikipedia, more often than not, to be self-correcting. One recent study pointed out that it rivals even the Encyclopedia Britannica (also now online) for accuracy.

For millennia, Jewish tradition has evolved in much the same collaborative, incremental manner, and now it is finding a home in the global cyber-yeshiva. While rabbis still play a major role, everyone is now welcome to join in this timeless conversation. As new halachic questions mount — on subjects ranging from intellectual property rights and workplace privacy to the forwarding of third-party e-mails, rabbis are weighing in online; but so is everyone else. On my own blog (, I’ve initiated “Masechet Cyberspace,” a “halachic wiki” of sorts, for the discussion of these issues. Fittingly, “Masechet” means both a Talmudic tractate and a web.

So the three-day Jew is no more. During the rest of the year, she may be tapping into the Jewish stream in a brand-new way: frequenting the enchanted Wiki-room.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #5: Sources on God, Judaism and the Internet

Sources on God, Judaism and the Internet

1) Rabbi Avraham Ya’akov of Sadigora (19th century)

“You can learn something from everything:
o From the railway – we learn that one moment’s delay can throw everything off schedule;
o from the telegraph we learn that every word counts;
o and from the telephone we learn that what we say Here is heard There.”

2) Martin Buber “All real living is meeting”

3) Fritjof Capra, “The Web of Life”

“To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our connectedness with the entire web of life. This reconnecting, religio in Latin, is the very essence of the spiritual grounding of deep ecology.”

4) Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail”

“The era of one size fits all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.” “The mainstream has been shattered into a zillion different cultural shards. * Increasingly the mass market is turning into a mass of niches.”

* In Lurianic Kabbala, holy sparks are embedded in shards of shattered divine vessels scattered throughout the universe.

5) The great Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav:
“It is good to have a special room set aside for sacred study and prayer, secluded meditation and conversation with God….and speak with Him about everything that is going on in your life. Confess to Her all your sins, transgressions and failings, and speak to Him freely as one speaks to a friend. You should speak at length, talk and talk some more, argue with Her, sigh and weep, and ask that S/He have mercy and allow us to achieve true devotion."

6) Joshua Hammerman, “ Seeking God in Cyberspace”

Sit down in front of your computer late at night and see what is there. Reach out to connect — and not necessarily with people. Simply connecting to the latest news, to stock results or late ball scores, is enough to evoke a feeling of “humble surrender” and awe. How lovely can this universe be, how orderly and sound, when, without waking a soul, I can order cut-rate plane tickets to Chicago? How close to the mountaintop can one ascend, when, with a few clicks, one can see the deep blue earth from the perspective of a roving satellite hundreds of miles up? How dusty must my weary pilgrim’s feet get, when I can click my way to a live shot of Jerusalem’s Western Wall in seconds, and fax my prayer to be placed within its ancient cracks?

Tattoo or Not Tattoo: That is the Question

Last Shabbat we had a fascinating discussion on this recent article from Ha'aretz. The article details a moving account of how the adult child of a survivor wanted to keep the legacy of his father alive by walking into a Tel Aviv tattoo parlor and asking to have an exact copy of his father’s Auschwitz number branded on his own arm. Since the law against tattooing comes from last week’s portion of Kedoshim, and coming on the heels of Yom Hashoah, the discussion was a “natural.”

It’s a discussion I often have with teens. Why are tattoos considered so “unkosher?”

A good, quick response can be found on Hillel's website. Essentially there are three reasons that have been posited through the centuries: 1) that tattooing was originally a form of pagan worship; 2) that the human body is a holy vessel, a creation “in God’s image,” and who are we to desecrate a gift from God? The mutilation of the body isn’t entirely prohibited, though. Earings are permitted, for instance, and anything that enhances or saves life, such as autopsies, organ donation and, yes, even some plastic surgery. If the Elephant Man came into my office and said he wanted “a different look,” I don’t think I’d chase him out as a vain, narcissistic man. While he could have technically lived without it, his self image may be so low that in fact, such surgical enhancement could in fact keep him from taking his own life.

I must add, however, that the worship of the body should have its limits – and if such physical enhancement also causes a serious risk to health (e.g. tanning salons or breast implants), we’ve got to wonder if it isn’t just another form of pagan worship. Some have made the claim that circumcision is mutilation, but the prevailing Jewish view is that it is a finishing touch to the miracle of birth, symbolizing a partnership between parents and God. And in fact, in Greek times it was the painful operation to reverse circumcision that was considered the most reprehensible form of body mutilation, since it was done in order to assimilate into Hellenistic society, which was so focused on the exposed – and exalted – human body.

So it’s a complex subject, but the third rationale, he most recent. is the most relevant here. One reason I advise teens to avoid the temptation of tattooing is precisely because the Nazis did it to us. (It’s similar to the argument that I make against cremation). The Nazis did it to dehumanize human beings, to brand them as they would brand cattle, to take away their individuality and freedom of choice. Some claim that in the current context, tattoos are freely chosen and are a means of expressing that very freedom and individuality. But the very indelibility of a tattoo demonstrates the opposite. If it cannot be reversed, we forfeit the choice to not have it! And if the only permanent choice we should be making is to devote our lives to God, rather than a lesser object of devotion (read: idolatry), then that explains why circumcision can be the only indelible bodily change that is granted blanket approval.

But what of this survivor’s son, who wishes only to preserve the memory of the evil – itself a mitzvah (“zachor”) – rather than to perpetuate that evil form of dehumanization. Is this a fitting tribute to a generation that will soon be gone? Or is it a clumsy distortion, a visual aid that may succeed in shocking people but can’t come close to duplicating the real thing?

I tend to think the latter. There are many avenues of remembrance out there. Why choose to imitate the evil rather than stamp it out? The son’s desire is well intentioned, but if it didn’t even bring comfort to the father (who lived his whole life hoping his children would never have to live in such shame), how is this act not more than an example of the very self flagellation and mutilation that the Torah prohibits.

The Torah implores us to choose life. When we leave a cemetery, we wash our hands. Why, as we leave the smokestacks of Auschwitz behind us, should mark our hands so that the stain will never come out? Auschwitz will never fade from history. It is seared into our consciousness. The pain will never completely go away. But that doesn’t mean that we have to wear it on – or inside – our sleeves.

What's So Jewish About Mother's Day (A Web Journey)

(This web journey is a Shabbat-O-Gram “classic” – my apologies for those links no longer working)

A man calls his mother in Florida. "Mom, how are you?"

"Not too good," says the mother. "I've been very weak."

The son says, "Why are you so weak?"

She says, "Because I haven't eaten in 38 days."

The man says, "That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?"

The mother answers, "Because I didn't want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call."

When I was growing up, I used to love the little satiric book by Dan Greenberg, "How to be a Jewish Mother." It contained the typical jokes about dominating, overprotective mothers and obedient, castrated sons. There's still lots of Jewish Mother jokes on the Web, such as those found at, "Jewish Mothers' Food Definitions,"$148?mode=day, "Jewish Mother Jokes," and more assorted jokes at and

Here's a typical one:

A Jewish young man was seeing a psychiatrist for an eating and sleeping disorder. "I am so obsessed with my mother... As soon as I go to sleep, I start dreaming, and everyone in my dream turns into my mother. I wake up in such a state, all I can do is go downstairs and eat a piece of toast." The psychiatrist replies: "What, just one piece of toast, for a big boy like you?"

Of course, Jews didn't always stereotype their mothers negatively. When Rabbi Yosef heard his mother enter the room he would say, "I must stand up, for the glory of God enters." Rabbi Tarfon used to help his mother get into bed by bending down and allowing her to use his back as a step ladder (nowadays, most people prefer to tell their mothers to get OFF their backs). For Jews, it used to be that every day was mothers day.

Exactly a century ago, in 1907, Anna Jarvis campaigned for a national day to honor mothers. It is said that she was at odds with her mother at the time (ah… the power of maternal guilt). Read about her at

For Jews, the "patron saint" of maternal figures would have to be the matriarch Rachel, who stands watch over her children even in death, as in life. At, you can read how Rachel's Yahrzeit has been transformed into a national Mothers Day of sorts in Israel, especially among pre-schoolers (it occurs in the fall, on the 11th of Heshvan).
To read the fifth commandment is to understand that Mother's Day is indeed a daily occurrence for Jews -- or at least it should be. Sometimes it isn't easy to respect our moms. Take this Talmudic account, as related in a sermon by Rabbi Elan Adler of Baltimore (with whom I shared many great times when he lived here in Stamford):

The Talmud tells of Dama the son of Netina, who was once wearing a gold-embroidered silken cloak sitting among Roman nobles. It is clear that Dama ben Netina was highly regarded and respected. One day, his mother came to where he was sitting, tore off his elegant gown, struck him on the head, and spat repeatedly in his face. The Talmud says that with all this, he did not shame her. For he knew that the Torah demanded, "kabed et avicha v'et imecha," honor your father and your mother in all circumstances. The word "kabed" without vowels can also be read as "kaved", meaning a heavy load or burden. Sometimes, it is a heavy burden to respect our parents, especially when they are no longer capable, or when we don't see eye to eye with them. (find the rest of the sermon at

And indeed, there are also times when we can't honor our parents as much as we would like, specifically when they are abusive. Aish's Web site discusses these limits in an article found at

But, for the most part, mothers are due the highest respect and honor. As the saying goes, "God could not be everywhere, so God created mothers."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Masechet Cyperspace #4: Can We Erase God's Name on a Computer Screen?

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an interesting article about a unique Holocaust Torah: From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit. This inspiring piece has generated concern among some Jews because if you look closely at the accompanying photo featuring columns of Torah text, God’s name appears. This means that the New York Times has at last attained the status that it has always sought: it is a now a sacred document! Since God’s name is there, that issue cannot be discarded routinely and should be buried.

This naturally brings us to the question of what to do when the ineffable name appears (in Hebrew) on a computer screen. Can it be erased?

To respond to that question, I direct you to this article by educator Joel Lurie Grishaver (once a scholar in residence here). He writes: God's name on a computer screen is not sacred; otherwise you would never be able to change the screen or turn it off if God's name came up. Several legal authorities have allowed the electronic destruction of a sacred name on our screens because they are no longer printed - they have been broken down to a series of dots, and dots can be erased.

Here’s an interesting paradox. Most authorities say that the image can be erased because it is “non durable” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s words) – or, one can say, not “real.” Yet we also know that, like Las Vegas, things that happen on your computer STAY on your computer. Forensic experts can recover even e-mails that have long since been erased, and this is happening increasingly in legal cases. There is also the more spiritual notion that missives that we place on the Web, like prayers, are sent off into worlds unknown and heard Somewhere Else. Think of all the jokes or sappy stories that you receive as emails, only to be received again months or even years later. They return like Halley’s comet, again and again and again. The point is that when you write God’s name on your screen, it never really disappears. Like God Herself, it may not be visible after a while, but it is there. Somewhere.

So for two completely contradictory reasons, it is permissible to write the divine name on your computer screen, and then to delete it.